It was a rainy Sunday in Montreal, so I decided to skip church. Alright, I never go to church, but unbeknownst to me, I was in for some enlightenment, courtesy of Bishop Briggs and Alt-J. I skipped along the slick pavement leading towards Place Bell and arriving just before the doors opened. It was my first time in the building and so I wanted to scope it out a little. My thoughts? It’s the Bell Centre, but smaller. Bell Centre lite. I was a little underwhelmed by its carbon copy design, but it serves its purpose of housing those mid-range concerts.
Bishop Briggs may not be a familiar name to everyone (she just released her debut EP Bishop Briggs this past spring) but I imagine this will change in short order. Backed by some heavy, in your face electronic beats and keyboard samples, Briggs dropped some menacing lyrics on the opener “Dark Side.” “Welcome to my darkness, I’ve been here a while, Clouding up the sunlight, hurting for a smile.” Definitely not your typical electro-pop content.
Briggs used the stage as if it were her personal trampoline, bouncing from left to right with the exuberance of a toddler who was just been given their first taste of sugar. Add to this the fact that she was wearing a tracksuit and it felt at moments like I was watching a workout video. Honestly, the crowd just couldn’t match that energy level as most people just coasted on a sort of stoner, blasé vibe. In no way do I mean that they weren’t digging the performance, I’m only suggesting that this crowd was not prepared for that level of intensity. Not surprising I suppose, given that headliners Alt-J present a much more ethereal, slower paced performance style. This is perfectly alright, the crowd’s enthusiasm level simply wasn’t on the same wavelength as Briggs. Briggs closed the set with an electrifying version of her single “River,” (my current daily listening obsession), whilst still running circles around the stage. I’m tagging her as the Bruce Dickinson (renowned for relentlessly running around on stage) of electro-pop from here on out. The song climaxed in an intense EDM break down that coaxed a little dancing out of the audience.
I need to take a moment to talk about the lights for Alt-J’s set. Aside from maybe Nine Inch Nails‘ set up for The Slip seven or eight years back, this was the most amazing, trippy, and satisfying light set up I’ve seen. Each of the three members were closed off in what I would describe as transparent office cubicles that emanated an array of light patterns that actually followed the pulse of the music! So, when they opened with “3WW,” one light would ripple with the strum of the guitar while another would pulse with the bass drum, and so on. Incredible stuff.
The set was hypnotic. Alt-J do not offer much as far as stage presence and rely heavily on their musicianship and sound to captivate the audience. If a band can stand up to replicate their studio sound live, or come close to it, it’s usually an indicator that they have a good sound overall. With Alt-J, I truly feel that they elevate their sound in concert to where it’s actually superior to the studio. The vocal harmonies between singer and guitarist Joe Newman as well as keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton come alive and warm up the room. It’s as if the songs are imbued with a burst of energy that can only be experienced in a live environment.
“Taro,” “Matilda,” and “Breezeblocks” had some beautiful moments with the crowd singing along in unison with the band. Alt-J did a commendable job of mixing in songs from all three of their releases; organizing a setlist is truly an art. “Dissolve Me” off their debut An Awesome Wave gave a chance for drummer Thom Green to lay down his dizzying, off-kilter drum patterns. “The Gospel of John Hurt” from their sophomore release This Is All Yours showcased the bands trippier/dark side. The audience hung on to every song for every moment. As Alt-J announced, “This is our last song” and the crowd let out the usual “Noooo” response, I actually felt that this crowd was wholeheartedly disappointed that the show was coming to an end. Too bad they couldn’t have played in perpetuity. Maybe next tour…
Written by Lee Ferguson
Photography by Michael Kovacs
*edited by Lia Davis